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From Preschool to Adulthood: Building Social and Emotional Skills with Fiction

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Earlier this month, a New York Times article by Annie Murphy Paul suggested that reading fiction was a powerful way to build social-emotional skills. She cited the work of several researchers in support of this, and I followed up one line of work, by Raymond Mar (York University, Canada). I am convinced, as well.

First, there is the logic of the premise. How can we hope to get into others' minds, know their feelings in detail, or track their thought processes, better than through well-written fiction? These are aspects of social and emotional skill development that are hardest to train in nuance and depth, and hard to pick up through interpersonal interaction alone.

Second, there is the science of the premise. Dr. Mar's findings in the Annual Review of Psychology (2011) suggest that the same areas of the brain are stimulated by our attempts to makes sense of stories and to make inferences about others with whom we are interacting. In a 2009 study, he found that frequent readers of fiction had greater capacity for empathy and interpersonal insight, and had social networks and social relationships that were no different from those who read less.

There were even some preliminary data suggesting that fiction readers have better social support networks. Dr. Mar's lab followed this with a study in 2010, published in Cognitive Development, focused on preschoolers. He and his colleagues found that exposure to stories, in particular, was associated with young children's development of theory-of-mind skills.

These are skills essential for taking others' perspectives and coordinating their relationships with diverse others. They note that these findings cannot be accounted for by language skills alone; they believe that something is happening in children's cognitive structures, fostering their social-emotional competence.

Finally, there is the common sense and action implications of the premise. Our children's knowledge of our social world would be, and is, limited if they rely only on information they obtain in direct interactions with others. Even media-like television provide relatively few insights unless adults are talking with children about what they are watching, giving them insights beyond the surface.

The action implications are clear. Particularly in early childhood, but still highly important thereafter, is the integration of well-written, evocative fiction in giving children a deeper view of the social worlds around them. This would extend to historical fiction, and dramatizations of scientific discoveries and artistic and performance accomplishments.

Educators and parents should consider the fiction that young people read to be building blocks of their SEL and social, emotional, and character development (SECD). It makes sense to incorporate more, rather than less, of this modality as part of systematic skill-building efforts.

Consider reading more about Dr. Mar's work. And I will immodestly suggest a book of stories for young children, designed to build their SEL skills through the stories themselves and the guidance given to teachers and parents about how to talk to children about the stories: Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Resilience and Emotional Intelligence in Young Children (Hankin, Omer, Elias, & Raviv, 2012).

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

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Lisa Siese's picture
Lisa Siese
Fifth Grade teacher from Bermuda

Good day,
I completely agree that reading fiction, particularly well-written fiction, can be an excellent building block for SEL skills and SECD. I have recently used Patricia McKissack's A Friendship for Today to help explore how positive relationships can develop between people who are fundamentally quite different - on the surface.

I do have an issue in my class at present where my students are not treating a classmate well. He is a person with Asperger's but is very high-functioning. In my opinion, his classmates are only just now noticing how different his social interactions can be and are reacting to this. I was wondering if you might be able to recommend a work of fiction that I could use to help explore this topic? I have considered "Flowers for Algernon" on the recommendation of some of my ex-students, but worry it is a little too high-level.

I woudl appreciate any suggestions!

Steven Rookwood's picture
Steven Rookwood
Second grade teacher from Baltimore, Maryland

Thank you for sharing this article! I agree that fiction is a great tool for teaching social and emotional skills. It is of great importance for teachers to exposed the students to literature from a variety of genre and cultural perspective to help them develop a better understanding of the world around them. This exposure also provides students opportunities to connect and show empathy. Annie Murphy Paul was right on the mark when she stated that the exposure to fiction fosters "social competence."

At my school, we focus on habits of minds such as resilience, creativity, curiosity, empathy, reflection and resilience. The students demonstrate these habits of minds in their responses to literature. We also incorporate service learning project to reflect some of the themes.

Trisha's picture

I am a Consultant Teacher in a 7th grade English Language Arts classroom and this year we have a very dynamic group of students, both general ed and those with disabilities. We did a unit on Social Issues in Reading and tied it into Character Development in Writing. We chose to read a variety of short stories to expose our students to as many social issues as possible/appropriate based on our grouping we did "Escape" by Margaret Peterson Haddix, which is about a girl whose father is in jail, she and her mom are homeless and living in a shelter. We also did the short story "What's Inside" by Avi which is incredible and the discussion/debate that follows is very insightful! It is about a popular(ish) Middle School student and his high school cousin who is a loner with no friends, he wants to commit suicide and wants the Middle School cousin to help. We then do "Tuesday of the Other June" by Norma Fox Mazer which is about a girl dealing with a bully, and then "Thin" by Joan Bauer which is about a girl suffering from an eating disorder. We try to expose them to as many social issues as possible that deal with what they face in their lives. We then do a group discussion (student run) on the issues and their comments/discussion is beyond what we expect from 7th graders. I hope one of those helps :) We love doing that unit, the kids really enjoy it too.

Trisha's picture

We also use Shelf Life: Stories by the Book by Gary Pulsen for other stories for our higher readers or the 8th graders I CT for. It is a great resource!

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

You don't say what grade you teach, but how about "Rules" by Cynthia Lord or "Al Capone Does My Shirts" by Gennifer Choldenko?

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